A prescient pioneer: UMass forum celebrates the late Harvard psychiatrist Lester Grinspoon, an early advocate for legalizing marijuana

  • The late Harvard Medical School associate professor and psychiatrist Lester Grinspoon, seen here in 2010, was celebrated at UMass Amherst on June 24 as a pioneer in reforming the nation’s marijuan laws. COURTESY UMASS AMHERST SPECIAL COLLECTIONS

  • Lester Grinspoon speaks at a 1975 NORML conference in Washington, the fourth annual conference of the nonprofit group that formed in 1970 to reform the nation’s marijuana laws. NATIONAL ORGANIZATION FOR THE REFORM OF MARIJUANA LAWS (U.S.) (NORML) RECORDS/ROBERT S. COX SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND UNVIVERSITY ARCHIVES RESEARCH CENTER, UMASS AMHERST LIBRARIES

Staff Writer
Published: 6/30/2022 1:34:53 PM

AMHERST — A pioneer in the effort to decriminalize marijuana. A dedicated advocate of reining in nuclear weapons. A brilliant psychiatrist and omnivorous learner who, as one admirer put it, “applied science to social justice issues.”

And, in the words of an angry Richard Nixon, a “clown” who needed to be slapped down hard because of his push to reform the country’s marijuana laws.

At a daylong forum on June 24 at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, friends, family, and a wide range of doctors, lawyers, and drug and health specialists gathered to honor the late Lester Grinspoon, a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist, professor, and writer who won fame — and generated controversy — for his arguments for legalizing marijuana and its potential health benefits, at a time when many saw pot solely as the province of hippies.

At “Lester Grinspoon Reconsidered: Celebrating a Pioneer of Drug Policy and a Legacy of Social Change,” held in the university’s campus center, two of Grinspoon’s sons remembered their father as an eternally curious man, one who read widely on different subjects, loved the natural world, and was never dogmatic about his views.

Rather, said David Grinspoon, his father was always willing to change his mind if he learned something new — even as he used his own training and education to push for changes in U.S. society.

“I think of my dad as the smartest person I ever knew,” said Grinspoon, an astrobiologist. “And he was never afraid to speak truth to power.”

Friday’s forum, held on the 94th anniversary of Lester Grinspoon’s birth in Newton (he died in 2020 at age 92), was hosted by the Special Collections and University Archives and Research Center (SCUA) and the UMass Amherst Libraries. (Grinspoon’s papers are now archived at SCUA.)

The symposium offered a number of panel discussions on past and current U.S. drug policies as well as a keynote address by Carl Hart, a psychology professor at Columbia University who has written and spoken widely about drug use and policy.

The event got off to an often funny but also heartfelt start with presentations by David Grinspoon and his brother Peter, a physician and cannabis specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital who has also written about addiction. Both recalled growing up in a vibrant household where “the brightest, progressive minds of the day” were often guests, Peter Grinspoon said — including his father’s good friend and Harvard colleague, astronomer Carl Sagan.

Lester Grinspoon himself grew up in a home with very little money, the brothers said, and actually left high school early to join the merchant marine. But he later graduated from Tufts University and then Harvard Medical School, entirely on scholarship. “He might have been the only high school dropout to graduate from Harvard Medical,” Peter Grinspoon quipped.

Their father was also an early opponent of nuclear weapons, the brothers said, and he approached the issue from a psychological angle, worrying that all the “duck and cover” exercises children were forced to do in schools following the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 were simply making kids fearful. He was a founding member of Physicians for Social Responsibility and also testified before congress about the dangers of the arms race, the brothers noted.

But Grinspoon gained wider notoriety beginning in 1971 with the publication of his book “Marihuana Reconsidered,” in which he refuted the evidence of the drug’s supposed dangers and suggested punitive laws for its use were more a function of political suppression than public health.

That earned Grinspoon a rebuke from, among others, President Nixon, who according to a number of reports was incensed by a favorable review of Grinspoon’s book in the press; he circled Grinspoon’s name in the piece, scribbling on the margins “this clown is far on the left.”

But as Peter Grinspoon recalled, his dad’s response to hearing about the incident years later was that “it was an honor to be called a clown by a crook.”

Challenging assumptions

In “Marihuana Reconsidered,” Grinspoon also overcame his own initial belief from the mid 1960s that pot was in fact a dangerous substance. “He was not afraid to challenge his own assumptions,” said David Grinspoon, adding that his father took up recreational use of pot later in his life.

Today, with the pot industry seeming to grow daily, his father’s push for legalizing the drug seems especially prescient, David noted: “Whenever I see a dispensary, I think of my dad.”

Lester Grinspoon also spoke out against harsh sentencing for cocaine use in the 1980s during the height of the Reagan administration’s “War on Drugs,” and he became an early advocate for the medical use of marijuana when another of his sons, Daniel, was stricken with leukemia as a teen. Before he died, Daniel got some relief from pain by using marijuana, his father later said.

Though he became a popular and public figure in the wake of “Marihuana Reconsidered” and his other work, Grinspoon was also marginalized at Harvard, Peter Grinspoon noted, because of his views; he was never made a full professor despite a long career there and many publications to his name.

That made giving his father’s papers to UMass a pretty easy decision, Peter said, when the former head of SCUA, the late Robert Cox, first got it touch with the family about 15 years ago.

Aaron Rubenstein, SCUA’s current director, said in a brief interview Friday that Lester Grinspoon’s push to reform the nation’s drug laws also spoke to the larger movement to end overly harsh sentencing, mass incarceration, and systematic racism in the U.S.

“He understood how all these things were connected, which is a passion of mine, too,” said Rubenstein. “That makes having his papers in our collection really special.”

Peter Grinspoon said Harvard got in touch with him about eight years ago about preserving his father’s papers; he had to tell the university that his family was already working with UMass and that “We’ve been really happy with the job they’ve done.”

“Sorry, Harvard,” Peter said to general laughter. “Your loss.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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